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Height and health: predicting longevity from bone length in archaeological remains
  1. D Gunnella,
  2. J Rogersb,
  3. P Dieppec
  1. aDepartment of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Canynge Hall, Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 2PR, UK, bDepartment of Rheumatology, Bristol Royal Infirmary, cMRC Health Services Research Collaboration, Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol
  1. Dr Gunnell (D.J.Gunnell{at}

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Contemporary studies show that taller people live longer.1 2 Short stature is particularly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.2 It is uncertain whether this association existed in earlier generations, when disease patterns were quite different. Before the 19th century the main causes of death were infection, malnutrition, accidents and childbirth. Here we report an analysis of the association between bone length, a marker of stature, and age at death based on the skeletal remains of 490 subjects obtained from an archaeological investigation in Barton on Humber. Our aim was to determine whether height-mortality associations existed in earlier generations.



The skeletal material was derived from an excavation of approximately 3000 skeletons at the site of St Peter's Church, Barton on Humber in the north east of England. The graves date from the 9th century up to around 1850. The lengths of all available long bones were measured to the nearest millimetre using an osteometric board, by two trained observers. Sex and age at death were assigned to skeletons using standard anthropological methods. Sex, based on morphological differences mainly in the pelvis but also in the skull and post-cranial bones, can be assigned with some confidence.3 4 Aging adult remains is more problematic and in this sample was mainly based on an assessment of changes in the pubic symphisis and the amount of wear to dentition. Over the age of 45 it is not usually possible to reliably divide into further age categories.4 5


Around a third of the 3000 skeletons belonged to children and adolescents (aged <20). Because bone growth is incomplete before adulthood our analysis was restricted to those aged 20 years or over at the time of death, as by this age 96%–100% of adult height has been attained. A further …

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  • Funding: none.

  • Conflicts of interest: none